Reaching out to your web of support after a pet dies is extremely important for working through your grief and loss. But as you do so, you should remember that you are the one grieving, and as such you possess certain “rights”. The following is my take on what others have written as a “griever’s bills of rights”, adapted to the unique conditions imposed by pet loss. This is meant to not only help you see that your experiences are real and worthy of healing, but also to remind you of how people should and should not be allowed to treat you. When friends fail you, you may wish to share this list with them. But if nothing else, use it to remind yourself about how important this journey is – important enough for you to set boundaries and know when to look for support in new places.
As a pet griever, you have the right to…
1. Experience pet grief in your own unique way.
Every journey through grief and loss is unique, including those that involve the loss of an animal companion. Don’t expect your experience to be the same as that of others. More importantly, don’t allow someone else to tell you how you should think or feel about your loss. This is your journey, and yours alone.
2. Feel a wide variety of intense and significant pet loss emotions.
Your emotions are likely to cover the gamut of the human experience, including disorientation, guilt, fear, disbelief, shock, confusion, loneliness, and even anger. While someone may tell you that it’s inappropriate to feel (for instance) relief at the loss of a pet, their judgmental responses should not dissuade you from accepting your feelings as a natural part of the process. Take your emotions as they come without judging them, work with a professional pet loss therapist or healer to understand them, and eventually you’ll discover how to grow through the experience, regardless of how you feel.
3. Have your pet loss experience recognized as legitimate and real by others.
There will be many who say things like, “he was just a dog” or “this isn’t as bad as losing a child”. These kinds of messages are attempts at disenfranchising your feelings even though yours is a very real experience loss. Your pet loss feelings are real, more than likely intense, and therefore are just as legitimate as anyone else’s emotions during times of loss. If those in your life cannot accept your grief for the significant and powerful experience that it is, consider surrounding yourself with different people during this time. It is your right to get support from those who will acknowledge your feelings, understand your pain, and love you through the entire experience.
4. Talk about and process your pet grief on your own timeline.
Going through pet loss is like riding a roller coaster. One moment you’ll feel like you’ve recovered a great deal and can handle any challenge in life, and the next you find yourself weeping at the recollection of a favourite memory. Keep in mind that even though bursts of grief may come out of nowhere, these are perfectly natural. Go back to your support network to talk about your experience and to learn how to integrate even these surprising feelings into your growth journey. There’s no rush needed during pet loss. Take your time.
5. Integrate your spirituality and ritual into how you honour your pet.
If you live a life of faith, feel free to use your beliefs as the foundation for working through your grief and finding meaning. Religious belief can be incredibly healing and comforting during times of pet loss. If your tradition uses funerals and other rituals to mark the occasion of a death, then adapt those traditions to find new ways to honour your pet’s life. Even if your grief has you feeling angry at God, that’s ok. Find someone who will not judge you for your feelings and talk it through to discover new insights in light of your spiritual beliefs.
6. Recognize the significant impact pet loss can have on you emotionally and physically.
Your body and your heart will undergo significant strain during pet loss. Remember that you have limits and that more than likely, you will not be able to maintain the same pace and schedule you previously had during the initial days following your loss. Be gentle with yourself but also be sure to intentionally care for yourself. Having a self-care plan for your pet loss will go a long way to honouring your own needs during this time.
7. Work through your pet grief and find healing on the other side.
Any emotionally challenging experience is an opportunity to grow and change. While you may not feel you have the strength now, remember that when the worst of the grief waves pass, you will find healing and new perspective. Be patient with your healing and remember that it will not happen quickly. Take it a day at a time and see the growth you experience as a positive expression of the impact your pet had on your life.
8. Treasure every tiny pet memory you have.
Turning your mind toward a memory of your lost pet is natural and can be very integral in the healing process. In fact, memories are one of the best ways we preserve the legacy of our pets. There is nothing wrong with sharing stories of your pet or finding ways to memorialize them so that you can recall them later. Recounting your dog’s silly tricks or your cat’s most endearing qualities might be the best way to honour their memory.